Monday, August 11, 2014

The Telling Detail: Ukraine Paramilitary on the Frontlines

This is a crucial week in the wars in Ukraine and Iraq, the two easily most compelling geopolitical stories of the year—but not of the decade, which belongs to the rise of China.

First, Ukraine. The pro-Russia separatists are doing badly, holding on to Donetsk and Luhansk for their dear lives. Pretty soon, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is calling President Putin, who will soon have to bet raise, or fold. Now, I, like everyone with any interest in this matter, have my own set of plausible outcomes in their order of likelihood. I won’t inflict my thoughts about that on you since my understanding of the region is largely derivative. However, I noticed a detail in the news that appears to be a crucial piece of the answer to the question: How did the rag-tag, poorly-equipped Ukraine military grow a spine and then some? I mean, it was just a few months ago that they’d caved in Crimea, and proceeded to yield to the pro-Russia separatists elsewhere in southeast Ukraine without putting up a fight of any kind. Did air cover turn the trick? Maybe replacing local conscripts with soldiers from the west really helped. Is Porochenko actually Tony Stark after a facelift? Perhaps all of these things helped, but there was no way to sure, since the media was not giving me any clues. But then, NYT provided a great hint in “Ukraine Strategy Bets on Restraint by Russia” (9 Aug. 2014), in which Andrew E. Kramer writes:

“The fighting for Donetsk has taken on a lethal pattern: The regular army bombards separatist positions from afar, followed by chaotic, violent assaults by some of the half-dozen or so paramilitary groups surrounding Donetsk who are willing to plunge into urban combat.”

The Ukrainian military didn’t get any stronger, they just called in their own paramilitary.

This may have some immediate consequences, for Kramer goes on to say:

“Officials in Kiev say the militias and the army coordinate their actions, but the militias, which count about 7,000 fighters, are angry and, at times, uncontrollable. One known as Azov, which took over the village of Marinka, flies a neo-Nazi symbol resembling a Swastika as its flag.

“In pressing their advance, the fighters took their orders from a local army commander, rather than from Kiev. In the video of the attack, no restraint was evident. Gesturing toward a suspected pro-Russian position, one soldier screamed, ‘The bastards are right there!’ Then he opened fire.”

The paramilitary harbors potential for battlefield atrocities depending on the severity of the endgame, assuming there is one. But it could be of more than passing importance regardless of the outcome or the process in getting there, for it will have proven itself to be by far the most powerful group man-for-man of fighters in the land. What ambitious politician would not want it to have his/her back in the post-conflict political landscape—assuming that it cannot be easily disbanded, once the hurly-burly is done? It is likely that a disproportionate number of these fighters owe their loyalty to the more radical elements in the Maidan takeover that wound up with Yanukovich absconding the country, elements who will be making demands for a place in the post-conflict political landscape that Porochenko and the rest of the mainstream politicians will ignore at their peril.

Outlook? Somewhere between the Taliban and the French resistance.

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